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Author Topic: The First 13
Gnomeinclaychair
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I've been looking at a lot of beginnings of stories and a lot of criticisms of those beginnings. It seems to me that the purpose of the opening is to get the reader to read on. I understand that thirteen lines is as much as most publishers like to read, but there's only going to be a very limited amount of information given.

I guess the trick is to have enough information there to get the reader interested in reading more, but packing too much information into those first few lines can be horribly damaging to a story. You've got to parcel out information in managable bites on an effective pace, balanced with action and conflict, in order to keep your readers reading. If I read a beginning and aren't left with any questions then the writer has failed, right? And has probably bored me with too many details all at once.

I doubt we'll ever agree on how much is too much or too little information. That's gotta be a matter of opinion. When I look at the beginning of somebody's work all I'm trying to figure out is if I'm interested. Is this a story I want to spend my time reading? Now if the writing doesn't appeal, that's a factor, but mainly it's about story.

A number of critters seem to always want more info and seem to consider that a failing of the writer. I'm not sure they're always right.

Am I way off base here?


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Kolona
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Simply put, those critiquers asking for more info are asking for more to interest them. Something failed to fully engage them. Unfortunately, that something can be highly subjective, which is what drives all of us nuts.
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Christine
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Of course they're not always right, but they may have a point even if they're not right. I've noticed that critiquers are not always in tune with exactly what the problem is. They're confused, so they say there's not enough information. The heart of the matter, though, is that they're confused. Sometimes the problem is not enough information...sometimes, though, it's just the opposite and there's too much information.

Rather than amount of information, I like to think of it as complexity level. The initial complexity level should be low so that readers can understand and get involved. Then it steps up.

Talking about complexity instead of information leaves room for the familiar situation, and IMHO, the best hooks are rooted in something familiar, even if the story itself bends the familiar into another plane of existence. Some people will disagree with me. Some people enjoy just plain weird, but I think this is a far more difficult game to play.


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JOHN
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See, I know that editors will only typically read the first thirteen, but there’s some published work out there I would never read and haven’t based off the same thing. I understand the need for a bit of exposition, but hot damn get on with the story.

Here’s an example. I’ve mentioned before that I read comics, and everyone is making a big deal that Stephen King is working with Marvel to do a prequel to the Dark Tower series. Now, I’ve never been a fan of King nor have a read a lot of his work. But I thought I might pick up the comic, since I heard good things about The Dark Tower series. So, I went to Amazon and looked up the first book to take a glance at the first couple pages. I couldn’t get past the first thirteen lines.


quote:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions. White; blinding; waterless; without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its way through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway and coached had followed it. The world moved on since then. The world had emptied.

The gunslinger walked stolidly, not hurrying, not loafing. A hide waterbag was slung around his middle like a bloated sausage.


zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Already, I don’t care. I’m not reading any of those books, nor the comics, and more than likely nothing of Kings’s.

Now, I know King is a 800 lb gorilla, but this is one of his early works. I don’t understand how any editor would look at those thirteen lines and want to read more.

Ok, King probably had an agent, and several bestsellers under his belt at that time, but I’ve read stuff just as dull from first time authors. And MUCH of what I’ve read over on Fragments and Feedback is exponentially better then what I posted above.

So, I guess it is subjective, but tell me something about a character or start with some action. If I wanted a landscape I’d go to an art museum.

JOHN!

[This message has been edited by JOHN (edited October 28, 2005).]


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Christine
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Novels don't need to do a damn thing in the first 13 lines, IMHO. They have about three pages. I would never dismiss an entire novel because of the first 13. It's a different type of writing, a different format, a different length, and there are different time limitations on getting information out there.

That said, I cdidn't find the next couple of pages of the Dark Tower series much better and in fact, I gave it up about 1/3 of the way through the book.


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JOHN
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quote:
That said, I didn't find the next couple of pages of the Dark Tower series much better and in fact, I gave it up about 1/3 of the way through the book.

That's good to know. At least I'm not alone.

quote:
Novels don't need to do a damn thing in the first 13 lines, IMHO. They have about three pages. I would never dismiss an entire novel because of the first 13. It's a different type of writing, a different format, a different length, and there are different time limitations on getting information out there.

I think you're right to an extent, but when I go to Barnes and Noble and i'm gonna drop $8.00-$25.00 I wanna know I'm getting my money's worth.

I can read a paragraph or two and know with a fair amount of confidence if the writer's style is something I'm gonna like. Now, I've been wrong both ways before. (either, I thought it would be good and it wasn't or I thought it would suck, and it didn't) But still, if you start out describing every blade of grass, I'm not sticking around.

Here's another example. Along with the King announcement, Marvel also annoucned that David Morrell would be working on Captian America. So, again, I headed to Amazon and checked out the first few pages of First Blood.

quote:
His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky. He had a long heavy beard, and his hair was hanging down over his ears to his neck, and he had his hand out trying to thumb a ride from a car that was stopped at the pump. To see him there, leaning on one hip, a Coke bottle in his hand and a rolled-up sleeping bag near his boots on the tar pavement, you could never have guessed that on Tuesday, a day later, most of the police Basalt County would be hunting him down. Certain you could not have guessed that by Thursday he would be running from the Kentucky National Guard and the police of six counties and a good many private citizens would liked to shoot.

Now, compare that to the King stuff in my last post. Which sounds more interesting?

JOHN!

[This message has been edited by JOHN (edited October 28, 2005).]


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nimnix
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Well, if you describe the landscape enough like King (and Tolkien), you do get a novel that can be made into a movie, as long as someone is patient enough to sit through 800 pages of a blade of grass.

Not the kind of thing I enjoy reading personally, but it does make it easy for artists, designers, etc. to draw/build the world.

The kind of books I enjoy reading would take more interaction between the author and whoever's making the movie, comic book, etc. to figure out what color to paint the sky, what shape the mountain range in the distance has, and just how dusty that desert is, whether it's clay or sand. They're really easy to cast because you have a clear picture of the people.


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wbriggs
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I don't think you *can* answer *all* the questions in the first 13; but you can tell us where we are, whose POV it is, and why we should keep reading.

Oh, heck, that's not quite right. Replace my comments with: "What Christine said."


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Jeraliey
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In defense of the DT series (because I think the first four books are FANTASTIC!), the whole point of the drabness of the setting is to set up the premise of the book.

Roland's world has "moved on", leaving behind desolation and despair and a sense of directionless drift in everything that is left. Roland, as one of the last pieces of the ancient world, is fighting to save what is left by pursuing his quest to protect the Dark Tower.

That said, the first book wasn't my favorite. Although Roland is reasonably cool, and Jake is a neat character, the REALLY interesting things and people don't show up until book 2, The Drawing of the Three.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Susannah is one of the most fascinating characters in contemporary fiction.

So, if you all can get past all of the (brilliant, IMO) description, there's a really neat story waiting for you. I'd recommend slugging through.

That said, it becomes really obvious that he lost interest in the series after book 4. So just read up till Wizard and Glass.

Maybe a little more than $0.02


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tchernabyelo
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Remember why we're looking at/posting the first 13.

The first 13 is what an editor/slushpile reader/whoever will see on the first page of a manuscript. If your first 13 is good, they'll turn over. If it isn't, they'll stop.

Many, many published works do not bother with a fantastic first 13, because they are from writers who have already been published and have a name and a track record. They don't need to "sell" themselves to a publisher in the same way as a novice.

That said; for novels, my gut feeling is that instead of "first 13", we should (at least in part) be looking at back cover copy - the plot introduction and hook should be in that, because with something of the depth of a novel, you can't possibly introduce even a fraction of the important characters/plot/world concepts in 13 lines. As and when I get to posting anything novel-related in F&F, I will actually be posting my draft back cover copy, ot see if that hooks, rather than the first few lines of the novel.


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Leaf II
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" I couldn’t get past the first thirteen lines.


quote:
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions. White; blinding; waterless; without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its way through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway and coached had followed it. The world moved on since then. The world had emptied.
The gunslinger walked stolidly, not hurrying, not loafing. A hide waterbag was slung around his middle like a bloated sausage.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Already, I don’t care. I’m not reading any of those books, nor the comics, and more than likely nothing of Kings’s.

Now, I know King is a 800 lb gorilla, but this is one of his early works. I don’t understand how any editor would look at those thirteen lines and want to read more.

Ok, King probably had an agent, and several bestsellers under his belt at that time, but I’ve read stuff just as dull from first time authors. And MUCH of what I’ve read over on Fragments and Feedback is exponentially better then what I posted above.

So, I guess it is subjective, but tell me something about a character or start with some action. If I wanted a landscape I’d go to an art museum.

JOHN!"
............

Oh my............. oh blasphemy...
See, (and this is nothing against John... good observations btw)
But this is exactly why I hate the 13... grab them in the begining obsession with editors and readers alike. It is a dumb rule that gets people nowhere: case in point... the above conversation about DT series.
Sure, the excerpt of the begining may be boring, but by judging the whole book by that, you are missing out on one of the greatest, most amazing fantasy epics ever!!!
Thats why judging a book by 13 lines is crap. You need to at least give it a chapter, if not a good 50 pages
Aaaarrrgggghhhhh!!!! (a la charlie brown)..
Well, please keep in mind that I know my rant will change no editors mind (or readers)... but, lets just say I had to get it off of my chest. And for the love of God and the whole world, READ/FINISH THE DARK TOWER SERIES!!!!
[/opinion, selfish ranting)

cheers

[This message has been edited by Leaf II (edited October 28, 2005).]


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Christine
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quote:
Thats why judging a book by 13 lines is crap. You need to at least give it a chapter, if not a good 50 pages.

I disagree, at least in part. I do think you need to give a novel more than 13 lines, but I won't necessarily give it a whole chapter or 50 pages. Life is too short and there are too many books.

Frankly, most of my novel choices aren't based on the first 13 lines anyway. They are based on two thigns: other people telling me to read the book and and the back cover.

In the case of the dark tower, most of my friends and my husband love the series so I tried to read it. In the end they told me that it doesn't get really good until book 2, but that's just too long. Novels may get more than 13 lines but not even a series gets a whole book!


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Isaiah13
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quote:
Life is too short and there are too many books.

Amen.


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Paul-girtbooks
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Because the first Dark Tower novel was written a piece here, a piece there over some 10 years (it's a collection of linked novelettes and as such doesn't hold its own as a novel) the style suffers. In later years King realized this and recently brought out a revised version of the first volume.

However, of all King's half-a-zillion books 'The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three' is one of the best novels he's ever written.

One of the greatest, most amazing fantasy epics ever written...?

Nah, Leaf II, behave yourself. It's not even close. And, no, it's not 'Lord of the Rings' either. With the exception of Sam, Frodo and Gollum Tolkien's characterization is dire. Makes John Buchan's 'The 39 Steps' look as if it's peopled with well-rounded characters. Tolkien's portrayal of the 'human' characters was, in particular, cringingly bad. There are movements where Tolkien's language soars - almost always when the action moves away from the land of men. Other places where you can feel Tolkien has completely lost interest and is merely painting-by-numbers - again, almost always when we're in the land of men. The hobbits and Gollum are where Tolkien's true heart lay... the rest is just plot filler. When it comes to fleshing out the characters the recent movie version is far superior. I would watch the movie - all 11 hours of it - again, because the characterization is so well done. The book's one of those instances where people ask you 'Have you read it?' and I can answer, 'Yip, about seven years ago.' And that's it. Been there, done it, bought the T-shirt, ain't wearing it again!

What is the greatest fantasy epic? Couldn't say, as I haven't read enough sword and sorcery, high fantasy. In terms of borderline fantasy, then, heck, try any one of Clive Barker's doorstoppers: Weaveword, Imajica, The Great and Secret Show. His novel Galilee is particularly sumptuous and delicious! Also, David Zindell's 'Neverness' quartet is absolutely stunning. But, then, that's SF not fantasy...

... anyway, where were we?

- oh, yeah, 13 lines. Yes, I find it amusing when reading the critiques on the Fragments and Feedback forum and come across members who list all the items the writer didn't cover is their opening 13 lines. And I'm like, 'What?! You want them to include all that in 13 lines, using narative prose, even though it took you more than 13 lines just to list all the things they didn't tell you about?!?!'

So, then, it's a fine balancing act. You want to engage the reader's interest enough so that they will turn the page in order to find out more information. What you have to do on those 13 lines is tanalize them just enough so that they'll do that. But, again, that's the Catch-22, isn't it? 'Tantalizing' means giving out information - but how much?! The best ploy is either to hook them with a good sketch of your main character or else set-up a really intriguing premise.

Of course, in the first instance (meaning the first draft) just write the damn thing and worry about the opening later!

[This message has been edited by Paul-girtbooks (edited October 29, 2005).]


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Elan
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We all know 13 lines isn't much to go by. The thing I've picked up about the first 13 lines is this: you can spot a rank amature easily in that amount of time.

I don't know how editors think, but I do know that if *I* were an editor, if I found the 13 lines to be rank with spelling errors, grammar and punctuation errors, the start to be cliche or confusing... off it would go into the reject pile. Why waste your time if the author can't even get the first 13 clean?

If I were an editor and the prose was clean and precise, the grammar well structured and the beginning not horribly cliched (ie, the character wakes up naked with no memories), then I would most likely go on for at least another page or so. I don't think I'd wade through more than a couple of pages waiting for a hook, however, unless the prose was particularly clever.

It intrigues me how folks rail against the 13 line rule, as if they are being asked to limit the story length itself to that. Of course, you have more to your story! We all do! My advice is to join a writing group if you want someone to read the particularly enthralling third or fourth page of your manuscript that suddenly provides that magical hook.

Your first 13 is just a sneak peak. If it can't pass muster, then you have a LOT of work still ahead of you before you will break out of the slush pile. After all, 10,000 lines of crap is still crap.

I heard it said that 99% of all submissions end up in the reject pile. I also heard that if you are an excellent writer, you have a 100% chance of getting published.

My goal is to make my first 13 flawless, because by the time I've learned to do THAT I have the confidence the following hundred thousand lines will be just as good because I'll have developed the skills to make the whole story great.


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Leaf II
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"- oh, yeah, 13 lines. Yes, I find it amusing when reading the critiques on the Fragments and Feedback forum and come across members who list all the items the writer didn't cover is their opening 13 lines. And I'm like, 'What?! You want them to include all that in 13 lines, using narative prose, even though it took you more than 13 lines just to list all the things they didn't tell you about?!?!'"

Good point, Man!! I agree with this, but also let me say, to Elan... your post was well said. I agree with those two all the way. (Minus all the dark tower stuff... I will defend that series to the death... of everyone else)ahahhahaha..
*sigh..........


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Christine
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Elan, your post hist right on the nose.

The truth is, I don't read F&F anymore so I've forgotten the reasons I stopped. One of them was that I kept talking myself into going ahead and reading the full versions of stuff that was obviously utter crap. (I know, my own fault.) But you're right...in 13 lines I can tell if a writer is worth bothering with. Don't argue with me and tell me your story is good if I'd just give it a chance...if your prose is amateur, your dialogue stilted, and your grammar attrocious I need not read on. And then of course, there's the story I don't need to read because the first 13 lines told me everything about it I need to know.

The problem is that the writers themselves continue to refuse to believe that those of us with trained eyes (ie the ones who have read hundreds of these openings by now) can spot large issues with their writing with only that information. We can spot a great many large issues, though, without reading further. We really can.

Which brings me to the other reason I stopped reading F&F -- ingrates. There have been a few who directly argued or even insulted me, but those were rare. More often were the ones who simply refused to take the advise and the ones who may or may not have taken the advice but they never reciprocated and they disappeare from the site after receiving bad reviews of one opening.


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Beth
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In my experience, the opening paragraphs are an excellent indicator of what's to follow, for better or for worse.


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Silver3
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Yeah, I agree, though it is very hard to pinpoint what makes an opening successful or not (I for one wished I understood the trick). Grammatical mistakes and clichés are a clear turn-off, but otherwise you have to engage the reader's interest, and engage it fast.
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franc li
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I think it's safe to say that those works that are not published on the merits of the first 3 lines are published on the merits of the first 3-5 words:
"by so and so".

I guess it's possible to have a title so awesome that neither of the other two count. I mean, how is it that The Secret History is the only book I've ever read written by someone under 30?


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Shendülféa
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Paul-girtbrooks:

I actually disagree that Tolkien's characterizations of the human characters are bad. I here many critics argue this as well, but for me, it's just not the case. I used to think so as well, but when I re-read the novels, I realized that there is a lot of characterization there, you just have to work past his use of language to see it. The first time I read through the "trilogy," I was rather bored and all the characters seemed to be slight variations of each other and nothing more, but upon a second and now a third reading, I find that all the characters (including the Men) are indeed more fully characterized than I had first thought. As I grow more accustomed to his use of language, it becomes easier to distinguish between the different personalities. That's just my opinion, and my experience with the novels, though. I'm pretty sure most people would disagree with me, but such is life.


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Survivor
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Most people haven't actually read the books all the way through.

There is something strong to be said about how Tolkien tends to characterize the races foremost, then families/clans, and only then the individuals. However, he invents the national character and various lineages, he's not lifting them from existing stereotypes about Italians and Han and Saxons or anything like that. And I don't find that he characterizes anyone less by telling us how one's personality relates to a family and race.

But he doesn't do "standalone" characterization very much.


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Shendülféa
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No, I suppose not, but I don't think that was his aim in the first place. I don't think he ever intended to make the characters the main focus of the story, but rather the plot/theme and setting as the main focus of the story.
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Silver3
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I've always thought that the Lord of the Rings was more to unroll his world of Middle Earth, the landscapes and the history rather than precise characters.
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Christine
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It is primarily a millieu story, but any type of story can incorporate elements of any other, and in fact the best stories, IMHO, do a little bit of each type (millieu, idea, character, event).

I haven't read the books recently enough to comment on characterization. I didn't have a particular problem with it but neither did it jump out at me as a distinguishing feature. Then again, my enjoyment of the novels has been tainted by the movies, which I did not care for at all.


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Survivor
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Oh, come on, they were a valid effort. I enjoyed them a lot, even though there were all kinds of things that made me want to put Jackson in one of his old movies. Like the glowing green army of the dead, or the squiggling around with Faramir, or having Dethanor run a hundred meters--on fire--in about two seconds and jump--still on fire--to his death while everyone else stands around calmly. And then Gandalf, not at all shocked, says, "So passes Denathor, Steward of Gondor."

Okay, there were a lot of things to complain about, but I think that the movies were pretty darn good. And they didn't make the mistake of trying to do Irwen Ben Adar or whatever his name is.


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Robyn_Hood
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Some of the characterization was limited in the books, but it wasn't something I had a problem with. Secondary characters usually take a backseat to the main characters and most of the men were secondary characters.

My problem with LOTR has to do with Tolkein witholding information from the reader in a clumsy way, imo.


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lehollis
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The opening, whether it is 13 lines, or a million, should catch the reader's interest, especially if that reader is also an editor. Unfortunately, the definition of 'good' changes over time, but writers tend to look for formulas to work with. The definition may not change a lot, but I think it does change. I don't think it should be amazing if there are many works out there that don't follow this rule.

As for novels like LotR and The Dark Tower, OSC points out in Characters and Viewpoints that sometimes the environment (milieu) <i>is</i> the character, and uses LotR as an example. I think this is why characters there seemed rather simple and lacking dimension. When LotR was written, that sort of world was interesting and fascinating. Today, I doubt those books could get published without a best-selling name.


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Gnomeinclaychair
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I wasn't saying that the first 13 shouldn't be good, only that it gives you such a narrow window of opportunity to grab the reader's attention you're only going to interest a few readers and bore many more. Different folks find different things interesting. Different people are going to want to know different things about the story right away and you can only accomodate a very few. Judging from the bulk of the responses I get the idea that I'm not way off base here.

It's a bummer, but being realistic can be that way, I guess.

Oh, and it's tricky to criticize the LotR books. I mean the only book that's sold better is the Bible. Hard to argue with that degree of success. Still, it's hardly a modern book with a modern pace. I wonder how good it'd do if it were released brand new today.


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pixydust
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I agree with Christine and Elan.

The first 13 is the ultimate test. It really has nothing to do with if you like the character or the milieu enough to read on. I look for POV violations, grammar, spelling, punctuation, clarity, and whether or not it's cliche. After reading in F&F for almost the last two years, I'd say it's trained me to see fairly well if the person knows how to write a good yarn or not. I imagine the editors will look for the same things. Then maybe give it another page or two if it passes the test. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is really good at explaining what editors look for.

Oh, and I think that the LOTR was a wonderful thing for its time. It's a classic. I wouldn't think comparing it to todays lit is fair, as the rules have totally changed since then for what is and isn't interesting in fantasy fiction.

My reading suggestions are Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy, and The Tawny Man books (Way beyond good. I just love Fitz!). Juliet Marillier is my favorite right now. I love all her stuff (it's a bit feminine though ). I just can't seem to abide sword and sorcery. It just seems to have been overdone. I'm more into a historical type fantasy, I guess, or a modern fantasy twist. Has anyone read King's, The Eyes of the Dragon. It's been forever (like fifteen years), but I remember reading it twice--one sitting right after the other--I liked it so much. And Swan Song, by Robert Macammon is a book I read every year. A definite classic. I love the whole, in-side-out-face thing.

Okay, now my brain keeps thinking of books. I'll stop now...

[This message has been edited by pixydust (edited November 02, 2005).]


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Silver3
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I agree wholeheartedly with Pixydust, Christine and Elan. You can tell a pro writer from the quality of the opening alone. As to the "hook" factor, it is true that it will not work for everyone. In the Writers of the Future anthology, of which I am a big consumer, there are a few stories that I haven't been able to read to the end. But I usually gave them 1/2 pages to get to business.
I think the opening is more a way to demonstrate you can tell a story, and to pique the reader's interest. I'm not convinced that you can really grab everybody's attention to the point where they *have* to finish the story.

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Survivor
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If Lord of the Rings were being offered for the first time today, it would do just fine. No, it wouldn't be a best seller right out of the blocks, it might even take a few decades for it to be world famous. And there is more than a slight chance that the publisher would insist on doing it up as a single tome, in faux manuscript on parchment, retailing for $200.00. It would still do fine.
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Elan
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My goal in life is to have Survivor agree with me.
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Survivor
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But you manage that all the time. What kind of a goal is that?

My goal is to figure out a way to cheat at Halo so that I can use the rocket launcher and sniper rifle without ever having to worry that I'll run out of ammo.

Oh, wait, I did that last night


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